Senate Changes Filibuster Rules

The new rules would make it easier to bring bills and nominations to the floor for debate. There was a time when a senator would have to sustain a filibuster by holding the floor and talking non-stop for hours on end, just as Jimmy Stewart did in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

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When and if the U.S. Senate is ready to confirm Mary Jo White to head the SEC, she may find her path somewhat smoother - thanks to a rule change the Senate agreed to last night. The new Senate rule makes it just a little bit harder to block nominations, and a little easier to reach resolution than it was for President Obama's nominees in his first term. It's part of a subtle revision of the most potent weapon of the minority party: the filibuster. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The Senate may have no more passionate advocate for restraining the Republican minority's increasing use of the filibuster than Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley. Last night on the Senate floor, moments before that chamber cast a bipartisan 78-16 vote to alter some filibuster rules, Merkley said it was about time.

SENATOR JEFF MERKLEY: We had a particular growing element of paralysis that we had a responsibility to address. And tonight the Senate is going to be speaking in a bipartisan faction and saying that this cannot continue in the same way.

WELNA: Though Merkley was among those voting in favor of tweaking the filibuster rules, he confessed he was disappointed.

MERKLEY: I had hoped we'd go a little further in addressing the silent filibuster that has been haunting us in these halls.

WELNA: A filibuster, in theory at least, is the demand by a senator to keep debating a bill or a nomination indefinitely to keep it from coming to a vote. There was a time when such a senator would have to sustain a filibuster by holding the floor and talking nonstop for hours on end, just as Jimmy Stewart did in the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")

JIMMY STEWART: (as Jefferson Smith) I had some pretty good coaching last night and I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or a personal privilege that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday.

WELNA: But efforts by Merkley and others to require that kind of actual talking filibuster, as opposed to the silent kind that now rules, ran into opposition. Even some Democrats said no. In any event, any major changes in the filibuster would have required Democrats to change the rules with a simple majority rather than the usual two-thirds. Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, says Majority Leader Harry Reid had not ruled that out.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: He was prepared to do it, and frankly the only way you can reach this compromise in negotiation is if the other side believes you're serious. And Harry Reid had the votes.

WELNA: Michigan Democrat Carl Levin says trying to change the rules on the filibuster with just 51 votes, a move opponents call the nuclear option, would have made the Senate even more dysfunctional.

SENATOR CARL LEVIN: We avoided using a nuclear option, which I guarantee you would have led to a meltdown in the Senate. It would have made the gridlock that we've seen so far look like a Sunday school picnic.

WELNA: One change both Democrats and Republicans did agree to allows bills and nominations to get at least initial consideration before facing any filibusters. It also gives the minority party the right to offer at least two amendments. Arizona Republican John McCain called that a fair tradeoff.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Instead of blocking everything moving forward and blocking amendments, perhaps we could create a new environment here in the Senate where will let the minority have their amendments but also the minority party will also let the process move forward.

WELNA: Under another provision, votes for district court judges and for sub-Cabinet nominees such as Mary Jo White can occur much more quickly once supporters have 60 votes. If opponents want to keep talking after that, they'll have to go the floor and do it for real. Once again, Senator Durbin.

DURBIN: If you want to stop the Senate, if you want a filibuster, you better show up and sit on the floor, because they'll reach a point where if you are not there, it'll move to a vote. And in current law, under current rules, people can basically object and go out to dinner, object and go home. You won't be able to do that under these changes.

WELNA: As a newcomer to the Senate, Massachusetts freshman Democrat Elizabeth Warren hoped for more changes, but she'll settle for these.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: It is some movement in a Senate that has been deeply committed to no movement at all.

WELNA: The rules changes are temporary. They expire in two years. That may be enough time to tell whether they've made a difference. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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